I see ghosts — of students — passed

If I knew then what I know now how many lives could have been changed for the better…

Hindsight can be treacherous as a teacher, more so than other professions because our modus operandi — the kindness, patience and intuition — cannot be measured as an architect’s building or the barrister’s court victories may be measured or judged. We care and we always ask of ourselves, ‘Could we have done more? Should we have done more? Would we have done more if we had known?’ We just don’t know where our influence stops and whether the impact has been a positive one or otherwise. We can only hope.

Begrudgingly, I accept that we can’t help every child who comes across our path or sits in our classroom, but I wonder about those who, perhaps, I could have helped. I see the red flags of ASD and ADHD clearly now, but it hasn’t always been this way. At times, when we reflect upon our careers and children whose lives we have influenced, I see red flags I didn’t understand then, and I sigh and my stomach tightens. But so too does my resilience to make a difference now.

Annies’ Coming Out, by Rosemary Crossley, and my high school friend Scott’s, older brother, Pete, who communicated to the outside world through eye movements, had a profound effect upon me personally and professionally. I couldn’t imagine having a perfectly properly performing brain trapped inside an unwilling body and to this day it haunts mine: it’s my greatest fear. The determination showed by therapist, Jessica Hathaway, and Scott’s loving devotion to his brother still humble me. Their actions are embedded into my DNA: advocating for the underdog and the realisation that, no matter what skill or concept you are trying to empower the child with, you cannot do so if the child is not ready for it — no matter how entertaining or how good the educational research is. One must begin at the start, that is, from where that child is operating. I would add that this needs to be followed up with developing a relationship — not just rapport — as you guide your charge at their pace before entering the world of proximal difficulty. You must step into their world before they will enter yours.

Realistically, ADHD behaviour sometimes looks as if children are taking advantage of us in the classroom; pushing the limits. I understand; I have been there. There is a line between dependence and independence and we pitch our learning at the majority, planning for those who may not get it the first time, or even for inadequate explanations. Along this line between dependence and independence is a grey fog that ebbs between the influence of the first few weeks of school and the last few days of term. It’s further fertilised by teacher performance pressure and professional, collegial perceptions and our personal lives. You know it, it’s when we think “Hang on, I’ve explained it’, or “I’ve shown it, that should be enough.” It’s the ‘that should be enough’ thought that is a signpost that we are about to make a critical decision; a judgement. A judgement that can be just another decision for us in the thousands that we make each day. And a decision that’s the proverbial straw that determines a child’s self-perception.

What is it that makes us so sure of our judgement, our perception? What if this was the best the child could do? What if this child was doing their best and had been punished for it? What if, like Pete, this child was screaming for support but could not communicate it or articulate because they are hardly aware of it themselves? You would not give the same instructions to a Year 3 child as you would a Year 6 child, but this is precisely what we do to kids with ADHD in Year 6. Many have the intelligence but it is bound by their development inside the executive functioning of their brain the neocortex. We see the behaviour and not the neurological condition. Yes, there can be learned behaviour as well to make the situation confusing, including behaviour avoidance driven by anxiety. There are things we can do to separate ‘ADHD behaviour’ and just badly behaving students.

There are things we can think, let alone do, in our classrooms to make a significant difference in the lives of children who have ADHD. Simple things that will reassure you that your influence is a positive one and that your judgments are not adding to the howling voices of failure already circulating in these children’s minds. (Yes, it is a symptom: Perceived Disapproval.)

Girls and boys with ADHD need people to believe in them; to believe that they are trying their best. While you will never understand what it is like to have ADHD, know and appreciate that ADHD has been described and compared to walking up the down escalators and like having too many tabs open on your web browser. Know that it is exhausting focusing and completing things which aren’t of interest — they need more physical and thinking breaks. The hyper focus they may display at times is centred round their interests, so take an interest in their interests, talents, skills or hobbies. There may just be an awesome segue into the learning at hand.

Make three simple adjustments. They will make a difference that will truly make a difference: talk less, use simple instructions, use stepped instructions without reliant or dependant possibilities, ‘if and or’.

Employing just these three simple strategies in the classroom — genuinely, consistently and over just weeks — will make a significant difference and assist you to make an informed judgment at the crucial ‘that should be enough’ moment. This will create a life-changing deviation to this child in your care. There is a reason why you are reading this now and why this child is in your class.

So to the children who have grown into adults and said ‘Hello’ down the street or the tall, bearded, orange-high-vis-clad young adult who offered me a beer at the local, thank you for letting me know that my influence hasn’t stopped and perhaps I got it right most of the time. I see ghosts, of students, passed.

If I knew then what I know now how many lives could have been changed for the better?